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IT Industry Take-off That Never Happened

By Habibullah N Karim


Ray of Hope

As an IT practitioner and head of a software company I have lived through the vicissitudes of the IT industry in Bangladesh since 1985. As in other industries here, in IT also Bangladesh is one of the early adopters of this technology and again as in other industries not much has moved since the days of the early adoption while the rest of the region has moved by leaps and bounds. Back in 1989 at an IT exhibition organized by my firm and attended by the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh, I mentioned in my address that "Information Technology is possibly the last ray of hope in our horizon of economic upliftment. Due to lack of mass education, capital & a conducive political structure, our land failed to join and reap benefits from the scientific revolution of the 17th century and from the industrial revolution of the 19th century. IT revolution is our last chance of an accelerated economic prosperity because (a) adoption of IT is less capital intensive than traditional industries and (b) the intellectual property created through IT is universally applicable." In spite of the tremendous promise of Information Technology for our economic well-being and in spite of neighboring countries showing the way on how to leverage IT for economic gains, Bangladesh has failed miserably to make its mark despite fits and starts by many local entrepreneurs, academicians and Bangladeshi expatriates (NRB's) in the last seven years.

Cynicism

The question naturally is why did Bangladesh fail where even a war-torn Srilanka flourished or even a poorer country such as Nepal succeeded. At the risk of being termed a cynic I would single out cynicism to be the primary cause for the wretched condition of the IT industry in Bangladesh. I would hate to generalize but cynicism seems to pervade across all professions of this nation that is still grappling with its identity more than 30 years after its birth. However, in spite of our difficulties in succeeding as an IT services & software exporting nation, there have been a few positive developments in the last 3 years that is worth mentioning: -

A. Withdrawal of CD-VAT from import of computer software & hardware
B. Enactment of copyright amendment bill
C. Opening of the telecom sector to some extent
D. Formation of a high level IT committee headed by the Prime Minister
E. Establishment of a large number of computer education providers all over the country and expansion of computer science departments in all universities. However, except for item (a) the other initiatives have not advanced the cause of IT to the expected levels

CD-VAT

The withdrawal of CD-VAT from computer import has brought tremendous enthusiasm in the market. A large portion of the computer market today belongs to the home segment where children and students of all ages now have much better access to computers. This is certainly a big achievement.

Software Copyright

The long awaited software copyright bill was enacted in the parliament in July last year. Local software companies and expatriate Bangladeshis planning on bringing offshore software contracts to Bangladesh were very excited about this development. This copyright bill amended the copyright act of 1911 to extend protection to intellectual properties in all media especially electronic media which is essential for the protection of software copyrights. However though almost a year has elapsed since its enactment, the copyright act 2000 still has not been implemented making this great law an exercise in futility. None can make any software copyright registration under this act or ask for protection of international software copyrights although Bangladesh is a signatory to the Berne convention on protection of Intellectual Property.

BTTB Monopoly

We have certainly come a long way since the days of BTTB monopoly in providing VSAT services. Today at least in principle any Bangladeshi organization can approach the Ministry of Post & Telecommunication for VSAT license on payment of a fee and obtain VSAT service for data transmission from a service provider of his choice. We only have praise for allowing such
flexibility in obtaining VSAT service. However in reality getting VSAT license is not as simple as applying and paying the fee. While many licenses have been granted to organizations engaged in dubious business practices, many genuine software houses and IT firms have been waiting for more than a year to get a license although they formally applied and paid the requisite license fees. The gradual deregulation of the telecom sector according to the telecom policy of 1998 have not yet begun. The Telecom Regulatory Authority has not started functioning without which a level playing field for telecom operators can not be ensured. In such a situation it is the consumers of telecom service whether it is an individual at home or a business house requiring on-line data transmission services, everyone suffers -not only in the hands of BTTB but also other operators. Telecom service is an essential service on which subscribers become dependent. For safe-guarding the interest of the subscribers it is essential to have an independent regulator to ensure fair play. Telecom operator licensing should definitely not be vested with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication but with this independent authority.

National IT Committee

We have lost a lot of valuable time due to lack of understanding, initiatives and coordination between the splintered efforts of the various segments of the IT industry. To save time, to accelerate the penetration of Information Technology and derive economic benefits there from, efficient coordination amongst various government departments and business associations & chambers is critical. Such expediency can only be achieved through the office of the Chief Executive of the govt. which is the
Prime Minister. In that regard the formation of an IT committee headed by the Prime Ministers highly laudable. However given the current political situation with parliamentary elections approaching fast, this seems to be too little too late. We can only hope that this committee will survive the change of government. I may note that in neighboring India a similar IT committee has survived three recent changes of government there. 

IT Certificates

Bangladesh has seen an explosive growth in the number of IT training institutes in the last five years. Some of these institutes have foreign affiliation while some others are franchised operations of their transnational parents. The rapid increase in the number of these institutes indicates a growing awareness among the young generation about IT related job prospects. Hundreds and thousands of young people flock to these training institutes each year hoping that a computer certificate can land them a well paying job. There is certainly demand for skilled IT professionals anywhere in the world including Bangladesh. However IT skill and competence cannot be bought, they have to be acquired. Having a certificate from an IT institute can never guarantee a job. Just as in any other profession, one succeeds in getting a job in IT only through individual qualities, skills and competence. Such skill and competence can be attained only if the trainees are put through a rigorous curriculum of IT fundamentals and basics on which they can build well-honed IT skills and competence. Just as it would be ridiculous to teach calculus to someone who does not know basic algebra it is similarly ludicrous to attempt to teach someone CORBA or XML who does not even know Boolean logic. Every month we get candidates for jobs in programming who submit CV's studded with computer acronyms only to fail even the most basic test of competency. My advice to any young man or woman planning to undertake computer education is to check the curriculum of the programme they want to enroll in and make sure he/she understands the prerequisites for that programme. He/she must ensure that enough fundamental-building basic courses in computer science, Maths etc. are included in the curricula.

Cost of IT Education

There seems to be a lot of misconception about the cost of IT education. Solid fundamentals-based IT education requires responsible qualified teachers as well as good computing facilities. On top of that, in the fast changing computer industry, updating of computer curricula is a very serious and intellectual-labour-intensive endeavour. All of this cost a lot of money to ensure good quality IT education. In fact most IT institutes require two hundred students or more just to break even. But I also understand that a middle class family having two or more children can have great difficulty providing Taka 50,000/- a year for IT training for one member of the family. There are several ways to overcome this. a) A young person can obtain loan from Employment Generation Bank (Karma Sangsthan Bank), b) He/she can try to get enrolled in one of many Polytechnic Institutes offering computer science programmes which cost much less. Or if he/she is already a graduate then he/she can try to get enrolled into the Computer Science Diploma programme of the Institute of Scientific Instrumentation under the University Grants Commission. However the Polytechnics and Institute of Scientific Instrumentation have limited numbers of seats. For the great majority of the young people, going to a private IT training institute may be the only option. For those contemplating higher education in computer science it is certainly a good news that all universities both private & public including the BIT's are expanding their computer science departments. This will improve the availability of computer science graduates in the market. One area however remains to be addressed that is the lack of high quality computer books in Bangla. Bangla Academy may come forward in this regard to give contracts to technically qualified authors to write computer books in Bangla on various topics with up-to-date information that can be marketed at or near cost for the benefit of students.

NGO's in Business

One disturbing development in the last several years is the increasing presence of NGO's in IT business. NGO's charter is humanitarian services. With some clever twists to the income-generating activities under micro-credit schemes and other ploys, NGO's are becoming aggressively entangled in commercial business bypassing their charter. This is seriously jeopardizing the foundations of the industries in which NGO's operate. NGO business is detrimental to the economy because they destroy the competitive basis of the industry by siphoning off credit and by killing off genuine commercial competitors through illegal use of concessions on funds, import tariffs and other subsidies. NGO activities must be regulated by the Govt. to ensure that they restrict themselves to only humanitarian activities. They must be barred from engaging in commercial business and destroy competitive behaviour in the market place. For a budding industry like IT, NGO usurpation will cause it to be choked to death before it has a chance to bloom.

The Lost Opportunity

Bangladesh has been in the threshold of an IT industry take-off for the last one-year. The bird has not flown yet primarily for the problems delineated above. Even in this dismal scenario there have been individual acts of heroism and success which attest to the fact that this industry can still fly if the ramshackle are done away with. Today thousands of Bangladeshis are working in USA, Europe, Japan and other parts of the world as programmers and IT professionals. Hundreds more are leaving the country each month. Many software houses are already doing off-shore contracts. But all that amounts to an indiscernible portion of the global market for software and IT services. 

The lost opportunity and potential is evident from the fact that India, Pakistan and Srilanka earn $8 billion, $500 million and $200 million respectively a year from IT services & software export. What is important to note is that earnings from software and IT services does not put pressure on the import bill as value addition on average amounts to 70% of the export bill.

Whereto Now

With this backdrop what needs to be done to move the industry forward is known to all. Suggestions have been aplenty in coming. What is missing is a political will and a professional consensus among the IT industry stakeholders in carrying through the necessary reforms & initiatives even if they are painful for the short-term. (The author is the chief executive of Technohaven Company Limited, a leading software company of Bangladesh and is the founder Secretary General of BASIS)


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